Cross with American Atheists

FOURTH AND FINAL UPDATE:

I’ve just received confirmation from a 9/11 Memorial Representative that “The World Trade Center Cross will be part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, opening in September 2012.  It will be displayed in the historical exhibition.”

I hope this clears up the issue for everybody – the cross is not in the memorial gardens, as American Atheists, Inc. have repeatedly claimed on their Facebook page, but is an exhibit in the museum, as I have contended from the start.

THIRD UPDATE:

I have tracked down utterly conclusive evidence that the cross will be housed in the “historical exhibition” in the museum and will not be displayed on the memorial grounds.

This post, at the 9/11 Memorial Official Website, states unequivocally that the artifact was “recently installed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum” and that “In addition to the Cross, other religious artifacts that will be displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s historical exhibition include a Star of David cut from World Trade Center steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during the recovery effort.”

In the video found at the link above, 9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels states “The cross is in the museum”. Also, he is cut off when about to explain (we can assume) that the museum opens in 2012, and is therefore distinct from the memorial gardens (which opens in 2011). The historical exhibition is supposed to provide “presentations on collective grief, global responses, and the search for the missing in the immediate days and weeks after the attacks”, and in this context the cross is entirely justified.

Here is a design study image of the cross in its planned exhibit:


It is given this evidence, and given that American Atheists, Inc.’s primary objection was to the positioning of the cross in the memorial, and given further that they suggested that if it were in the museum it would be another matter (from their response to my post: “If it were part of a display in the museum…”), that I now formally request that American Atheists Inc. withdraw their lawsuit, unless further evidence comes to light.

SECOND UPDATE:

I have uncovered additional evidence that seems to demonstrate conclusively that the cross is being used as an exhibit in a museum.

The Province reports that “U.S. atheists are suing to try to block a cross-shaped steel girder once part of the destroyed World Trade Center from being displayed in an upcoming 9/11 museum” (my emphasis).

CBS reports that “[the cross] was moved into its permanent home at the 9/11 Memorial Museum on July 23, 2011″ (my emphasis).

And most importantly the Memorial and Museum website itself reports that “the cross was transported onto the WTC site and lowered into its permanent setting inside the Museum, which will open to the public in 2012″ (my emphasis).

Unless additional evidence is provided by American Atheists, Inc. I consider this case closed.

UPDATE:

In response to posting this article I have been blocked from commenting on the American Atheists, Inc. Facebook page. I am therefore unable to respond to their response to my article, which is as follows:

James is certainly entitled to his opinion, but like many he has one fact wrong. The memorial and museum are separate entities. The memorial is a separate place surrounded by the museum. The cross is going in the memorial and is the only religious symbol in the memorial.

If it were part of a display in the museum…

So the question, for them, seems to hinge on whether the Cross is to be used as the exclusive representative of a religious faith in the 9/11 Memorial or if it is an exhibit in the 9/11 Museum.

First, there seems to be confusion regarding the relationship between the Museum and the Memorial. It seems clear to me that they are closely linked: the website, www.911memorial.org, is for the “National September 11 Memorial & Museum”, suggesting they are essentially a single entity. Joseph C. Daniels is president and chief executive of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, again suggesting they are essentially the same thing. But the website does have separate sections for “Memorial” and “Museum”. So, is the cross going to be in one or the other, or are they too intertwined to tell the difference? I can only go by the evidence I have, which I analyze below.

The article AA President Dave Silverman himself wrote about this incident links as evidence of the placing of the cross the NYT article I used as a source in my original piece. He calims that “the Christian community rallied around a T-joint they found in the rubble and secured what is, in effect, a sole representation in the memorial”. The linked article does not support this claim. In that article there is only one reference to how and where the cross will be positioned. It says the cross will be in the “permanent collection” of the MUSEUM (memorials do not have permanent collections, and the title of the article clearly states “museum” and not “memorial”):

On Saturday [the cross] was moved again, to the site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it is to be in the permanent collection.

Further, Silverman himself seems to proceed on the assumption that the cross will be displayed in a museum, suggesting atheist displays which might join it. Joseph C. Daniels talks about it being housed in the museum:

“We have a responsibility at the museum to use the authentic artifacts that really came from the site itself to tell the story of not only what happened on 9/11, but the nine-month recovery period,”

So this article seems to conclusively support the idea that the cross will be housed in a museum, not a memorial.

Silverman refers to another article in his piece, which he claims “disclose[s] that a Star of David made (by humans, after the event) of rubble from the wreckage would also be included in the memorial.”

Slate in fact reports the cross will be “included in an exhibit at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum” – which doesn’t sound like a memorial to me either.  It further states that “other religious artifacts would be included in the exhibit, including a Jewish prayer shawl given by a victim’s family member and a Star of David made from WTC steel” (my emphasis). This further supports the idea that we are talking about some sort of exhibit here, not a cross standing alone in the memorial gardens. Remember the AA response on Facebook? “If it were part of a display in the museum…”

Newser.com also reports that “Officials of American Atheists say they will drop the lawsuit if the 9/11 Memorial Foundation allows other monuments of equal size and prominence to be displayed inside the museum” (my emphasis).

Perhaps most damning, ABC News supports this position too, writing “An atheist group sued today over the inclusion of cross-shaped steel beams, dubbed the “World Trade Center Cross,” in the exhibit at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum” (my emphasis).

From this extensive analysis of the evidence, much of it provided by Silverman himself, I can see no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the cross will be placed in such a way as iti s part of a separate memorial and not part of an exhibit of some kind in the museum.

Original Article:

Let’s get this out of the way: from the Humanist perspective a “cross-shaped steel beam found amid the rubble” of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks is not the sign of a benevolent creator God reaching down to bless His creation and give succor to the grieving and those who toiled to clear away the debris. It’s an accident, a fluke: a creation of chance, not God.

But it is no surprise that, as Joseph C. Daniels, president and chief executive of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, notes in a New York Times Article “[The cross] provided comfort to hundreds and hundreds of people who were working in some of the most hellish conditions imaginable”.

Most Americans are religious. Most of those religious people are Christian. Isn’t it understandable that in a time of enormous suffering people who are religious, and whose religion is commonly represented by the symbol of a cross, will latch onto this random occurrence and ascribe significance to it and draw strength from it?

I understand it. I think many non-Christians can understand it.

Now what if you wanted to put this cross in a museum? What if you wanted to record it as part of the history and narrative of the 9/11 attacks, and our response to them? And what if the museum, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, is supported by public money and on public land?

I recognize this is potentially sticky ground. The U.S. Constitution and subsequent case law does not allow the government to promote religion, and the secular basis of U.S. government is clear. This is not a theocracy, and we are lucky to have such a clearly secular state. It would be horrific if the cross were displayed in such a way that suggested that the only casualties were Christians, or that this symbol represents all those affected. Despite the protestations of some, the cross is an explicitly Christian symbol: a symbol which leaves members of other religions and none cold, and which could be seen as exclusionary were it the only religious tradition represented.

But this is not just any cross. It is part of the history and mythology of Ground Zero. It is an integral and important part of the response of millions to the attacks. It is, as Marc D. Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and specialist on church-state issues has said “a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, [and a] secular piece of history”.

So what might be a considerate, compassionate, Humanist response to this issue, which recognizes the significance many have found in the cross but does not allow the government to proselytize using public land and public money? Perhaps you’d want to work with the museum curators to ensure that the cross is displayed in such a way that the “secular history” of the cross is prioritized. Perhaps you can suggest ways in which other religious and ethical traditions’ responses to the attacks could be displayed with equal prominence. Perhaps you could simply write to the museum and request information about how, precisely, the cross is to be displayed, and offer your assistance in ensuring that it is shown in a manner respectful to all?

But American Atheists, Inc. have done none of these. Instead, they first opposed the inclusion of the cross using inflammatory language. “This was an attack against America, not Christianity”, they said, “and Christianity’s [sic] does not deserve special placement just because THEY think the girders look like their religious symbol.”

“THEY”? This doesn’t read to me like a message of “all Americans united to memorialize the fallen”, but rather a divisive and petty attack on the beliefs of fellow Americans. Christian Americans are not a “THEY” – they are an “US”, even when some Christians want to do things some atheists would disapprove of.

Then, American Atheists, Inc. filed a complaint, effectively seeking to block the inclusion of the rebar cross in the memorial. In the complaint, as the New York Times points out, are claims that

The plaintiffs, and each of them, have suffered, are suffering, and will continue to suffer damages, both physical and emotional, from the existence of the challenged cross. Named plaintiffs have suffered, inter alia, dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack and the lack of acknowledgement of the more than 1,000 non-Christian individuals who were killed at the World Trade Center.

Well, American Atheists, Inc. have achieved one thing: they have made me agree for the first (and hopefully only) time with Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, who said that this is “bordering on the absurd.”

American Atheists, Inc. is one of the oldest atheist organizations in America, and has a long history of challenging genuine incursions of religion onto the secular state. I applaud these efforts. The individual plaintiffs in this case may be 9/11 heroes, New York residents, and extremely caring and sensitive people, and I don’t wish them physical or emotional harm. But the inclusion of a the rebar cross in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is not an attack on the secular nature of the United States government. It does not represent a government attempt to promote Christianity or religion in general. It does not threaten the secular nature of our laws. It does not imply that the only victims were Christians and that other religious and nonreligious people are considered less important. It merely stands as a record for the fact that many human beings saw and continue to see significance in these metal bars, and turned to them as a symbol of hope in a time of trial.

As a Humanist – as an atheist - I want that cross in the museum. I want to see it. I want to think about it. I want, if I can, to run my hands along it. I want to learn the history of it and how it has been revered. I want to know these things so I can better understand one aspect of our response to the attacks – our response as a species, that is. For me, being a Humanist means being compassionate to those who believe differently to me, and seeking to best understand ourselves and our desires, dreams, fears and hopes. The cross is representative of a human response to a human crisis, and I want it in the museum.

American Atheists, Inc.’s actions would prevent me and millions of others from learning about the cross in a proper secular context, and would force us to venture into religious spaces where we may not feel fully welcome in order to see it. They would, if they are successful, close down avenues for growth and understanding that the 9/11 Museum might offer. They seem to forget that all across the country religious art is found in publicly sponsored museums, and that this enriches the cultural experience of us all, religious and Humanist alike. They recognize no distinction between providing information about a religious symbol or practice, and endorsing that symbol or practice (and therefore render impossible any idea of religious education). And they paint atheists, once again, in a negative light, as people who stand on the outskirts of society and tell others that their religious traditions should never be on display in publicly-funded or owned spaces.

Usually I recognize that American Atheists, Inc. have got a constitutional point, but argue that they should pick their battles. Not so here. American Atheists, Inc. are flat out wrong. There is a clear secular reason to include the cross in the memorial, and atheists like myself would benefit from its inclusion.  American Atheists, Inc.: by opposing the cross’ display in this way you make me and other atheists in America look like religiophobic imbeciles who are incapable of looking on a cross without developing symptoms of psychic and physical illness. You push us to the outskirts of public discourse and make us look like cruel, narrow-minded extremists. Most importantly, you make it harder, not easier, for us to prevent legitimate attacks on the secular nature of this country when they arise, because who will listen to us then if we act like this now? We become the boy who cried “cross”.

So I’m cross with you, American Atheists, Inc. Sometimes you should think before you sue.

  • Stephen Goeman

    James, thank you for this. A serious question: can somebody inform me as to the positive benefits or goals achieved by the American Atheists? I don’t ask this question pejoratively, but because I do not know the answer. I know that AA has been a force for good, and I would like a greater understanding of this to contradict my own intuition that they are collectively shooting atheists in the foot.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ Nathan DST aka LucienBlack

    All right. Well argued. I was slightly on the fence about this, but you’ve taken me off the fence. I cannot disagree with you this time.

    One positive benefit though: it got you to post again. I’ve missed your prose.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Aww thank you – I’ve been away for a while and focusing on other work =)

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  • Brandon

    To be honest, I find your conclusion to be tiresome accommodation nonsense. I was a conservative Christian for years, and a preacher, and I can honestly say that within that circle of people they don’t step back and say “Oh, well thank goodness they let us keep that cross up. Now we can all benefit from cultural diversity.” The line is usually more to the effect of “See! God kept the cross up for all to see because we’re right and they’re all wrong!” The cross being on public displays is, in their eyes, more confirmation that their God is real and this is a Christian nation, and so it serves as a saline drip of affirmation that they can just keep right on ignoring Atheists, Agnostics, and people from other religions.

    You say that as a Humanist you are “compassionate to those who believe differently,” and are “seeking to understand our desires, dreams, fears, and hopes.” If that be true, then extend that compassion to these people who keep their heads clogged with notions that they are chosen above all others; take them to task on their tacit discrediting of other beliefs and the people that hold them and force them, through open and honest public discourse, to grow and to learn. Maybe, just maybe, if we stopped letting their underdeveloped arguments pass with so little criticism, we would get them to start critically thinking and actually do them a favor instead of patting them on the head and saying “Aww, your religion’s so special.”

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Thanks for your comment. First, the response of conservative Christians, even if it will be as you describe, is irrelevant to the question of the constitutionality of the move to house it in the museum.

      Second, there’s something intriguing to me about a post which both calls me to engage in critical discussion with others’ points of view in “honest public discourse” and to avoid “underdeveloped arguments” AND fails entirely to engage with the argument I have myself made in favor of my point of view.

      Nothing I wrote remotely supports the interpretation you have made. I consistently and robustly criticize religious and other beliefs all the time, as a cursory investigation of this blog and my writing elsewhere would have confirmed. Nowhere in this article do I suggest patting religious people on the head or “letting their underdeveloped arguments pass”. Rather, I have presented a principled and strongly-evidenced argument against American Atheists’ stance on this particular issue.

      Do you have anything substantial to say about what I in fact wrote?

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  • David Kimball

    This question reminds me of the book “The Submission”. This is a story about a panel of elite judges who are to review the submissions of architects for a 9/11 memorial two years after the attack. The judging was a blind judging meaning that the judges did not know the name of the architect – only their plans. After the political workings they arrive at a winner. When they look at the name of the winner, they realize that the winner is a Muslim.

    The book is all about the actions and the reaction by the victims families, the mayor, a journalist, a FOX news (?) caster, the winner, his family, his place of work, and many others.

    The author did a great job of presenting everyone’s side objectively and did not present it with any “right vs wrong” reactions, but how everyone’s reactions were normal human reactions.

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